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Catskill Perch: Gabriel Piedrahita’s Tree House 

click to enlarge The main facade of the house faces full sun and the forest instead of the driveway. The siding from Hardie Panel is energy efficient and low maintenance. - DEBORAH DEGRAFFENREID
  • Deborah Degraffenreid
  • The main facade of the house faces full sun and the forest instead of the driveway. The siding from Hardie Panel is energy efficient and low maintenance.

You can take a man out of the mountains, but you can’t take the mountains out of the man. So Gabriel Piedrahita was to learn. He’d studied architecture in Argentina before heading home to Colombia in the late 1990s to practice the art, but something was still missing. “I just knew if I stayed, I’d look back in 20 years and say, ‘This is not the life and work that I wanted,” he says.

So Piedrahita, following in the footsteps of countless yearning folk and without a word of English or a definite plan, headed to New York on a tourist visa. The language barrier melted into nonexistence when he encountered the fluent espanol of Betsy Gude, daughter of a Colombian-American marriage, a California girl working for the Council on Foreign Relations. Very shortly, he swapped the tourist visa for working papers and found a job working on the East Side Access project, bringing the Long Island Rail Road through a new tunnel into Manhattan. “I spent five years working on megaprojects and living in Manhattan,” he says. “The tradition I brought from home is, you might live in the city but on weekends you head to las fincas. [Rough translation: the farm in the country.] Manhattan is a stunning place for an architect, but it’s dark and overstimulating.”

“That wasn’t me,” says Gude. “I was, ‘Nobody’s dragging me off this island. Central Park’s plenty green.’ I was from Palos Verdes, and had lived in Westchester. I assumed that outside of the city, you found suburbs.” She shudders expressively. “I couldn’t have begun to picture this.”

Piedrahita’s friendly persuasion prevailed. In 2006, the two began scouting lots from Ellenville to Shandaken for the right five acres, with a $50,000 land budget, a maximum commute, and a vision. A ski weekend in Hunter put them on the right track. “It was love at first sight with this lot,” Piedrahita says. “The bottom part is all full of ferns.”

click to enlarge To Piedrahita, the stairs are the core of the way movement circulates in the house. He wanted them to be fun, open, and ceremonial, and wide enough to enable casual interaction. - DEBORAH DEGRAFFENREID
  • Deborah Degraffenreid
  • To Piedrahita, the stairs are the core of the way movement circulates in the house. He wanted them to be fun, open, and ceremonial, and wide enough to enable casual interaction.


Organic Flow

The lot’s north end, where Piedrahita’s three-story postmodern creation rises from the stone and you can see for miles, wasn’t quite suited to the plans he’d originally drawn up. With the right place in hand, he had new ones ready to go in two days. “I used the perfect north/south access to maximize passive solar,” he says, gesturing toward the L of tall panes that wrap stunning views around the living room. “The architecture is a small piece, really. The light, the mountains, the creek—they all flow organically, and the house just needed not to interfere with that.”

“A lot of people say they want a traditional house,” says Gude, “and then they’re surprised by how inviting and warm this is.”

Bamboo floors, earth tones, and black accents draw the visitor past the cocoon of the foyer into a comfy conversation pit inside a vast panorama that no human artist could outdo. A kitchen gleams dark red and black from another corner. “The kitchen came from Ikea and the whole thing cost five grand,” Gude exults. “We had $24,000 budgeted for it, so that went into a deck instead.”
click to enlarge The semi-open kitchen features a downdraft range, glass tile back-splash, Ikea cabinets, and ceramic plates from Spain and Morocco. Piedrahita and Gude wanted the cooking experience connected to the living and dining areas, and the view of the mountains. - DEBORAH DEGRAFFENREID
  • Deborah Degraffenreid
  • The semi-open kitchen features a downdraft range, glass tile back-splash, Ikea cabinets, and ceramic plates from Spain and Morocco. Piedrahita and Gude wanted the cooking experience connected to the living and dining areas, and the view of the mountains.

A Wall of Glass, Full of Stars
Despite a largely open floor plan that maximizes the impact of the windows, the first floor is a series of cozy nooks. A stool tucked beside a kitchen window invites chatting up the chef. A broad hardwood bench invites relaxation beside of the staircase, which beckons with backlit risers and four-foot-wide treads. “Those lights are fluorescent shining through onyx,” says Piedrahita. “We use the stairs a lot; we wanted something ceremonial and fun, with plenty of space for two people to pass.”

The second floor houses the laundry room and a guest suite where a family of five could coexist in comfort, enjoying stunning views even from the toilet. The landing overlooks the living room, yet another little retreat where a miniparty or a private contemplation break might organically and comfortably evolve.
Atop the final flight of stairs, Piedrahita and Gude’s private roost is enormous yet intimate. The landing serves as Piedrahita’s studio, surrounded by the graceful asymmetrical angles and luscious view that define the theme throughout. A six-foot long, extradeep tub rules the master bath. “We can have a house full of people and be in complete privacy up here,” says Gude. “And there are days when we hardly leave the bedroom. Nights, that wall of glass fills up with stars.”
click to enlarge DEBORAH DEGRAFFENREID

Going Nomad
With an overall budget of $500,000 and certain requirements imposed by the location—building atop a high peak in the Department of Environmental Conservation watershed called for “the world’s most expensive aboveground septic system” and, aesthetically, for buried utility lines—the couple and contractor Peter Geoghegan focused on sustainable choices. Fiber-cement, low-toxicity permeable siding runs up to a Snap-On metal roof with R-30 insulation; the walls are R-18. Radiant propane heating is backed up by a wood-burning peninsula fireplace. “I had them put the fire box on top of the wood storage. I wanted my fire at eye level to the couch,” Piedrahita says, and grins. “The installer threw a fit, but he did it.” The deck is made of Trex; the lavish operable windows provide daylighting and air circulation. The three-story design allowed 2,400 feet of living space with a small footprint; Piedrahita’s Tree House displaced the smallest possible number of trees.

But perhaps greenest of all is the homage to the human factor. “The wide spaces invite interaction and nomad activities,” Gabriel explains. “Working with the light and the view this way eliminates the need for fancy art or much furniture, which is good because we don’t have much time or room for those. We love to fill the house with people we love, and eat and dance.”

One gathers that the dilemma Piedrahita once faced as he looked out over the Andes from Betulia, the town of about 5,000 where his father was the butcher, has been resolved. This is the life he’ll be glad to have lived. “I think I just needed the light,” he says. “I grew up where the sun comes from mountains and sets behind them. They say that makes a person want to travel, to follow that light.” Piedrahita is starting his own firm, Volarch (volar is Spanish for “to fly”) and would happily travel to your locale to design you a site-specific and sublime party house or other structure of your dreams. He’ll be happy to get home again, too.

Gabriel Piedrahita’s portfolio of designs for residences and the hospitality industry can be viewed at www.volarch.com.


RESOURCES:
Deck
Trex
www.trex.com

Excavation & Septic
Bates Craig Trucking & Excavation
Tannersville; (518) 589-5802

Flooring
Yanchi Bamboo Flooring
www.BuildDirect.com

Foundation
E Reinhart General Contracting
Rensselaerville; (518) 797-3106

General Contractor
Peter Geoghegan
Cairo; (518) 622-2810

Kitchen
Ikea
www.ikea.com/us

Landscaping
Kerns Nursery
Jewett
www.kernsnursery.com
Miscellaneous
Williams Lumber & Home Center
Tannersville
www.williamslumber.com

Plumbing & Heating
Bill’s Plumbing & Heating
Earlton
(518) 634-2158

Siding
HardiePanel
www.jameshardie.com

Stair Railings
Rothe Welding & Steel Fabrication
Saugerties
(845) 246-3051

Survey
Vanucchi Associates
Tannersville
(518) 589-5807

Windows
Anderson
www.andersenwindows.com
click to enlarge The social floor is open to the mountains and the mid-afternoon sun. The dining table was made from a reclaimed old table top found in a barn in the Catskills; high ceilings in the open space visually connect the floors. - DEBORAH DEGRAFFENREID
  • Deborah Degraffenreid
  • The social floor is open to the mountains and the mid-afternoon sun. The dining table was made from a reclaimed old table top found in a barn in the Catskills; high ceilings in the open space visually connect the floors.

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